Unlike the breakout success of Anastasia Motak a few months ago which was very much unexpected, the arrival of Viktoria Listunova in senior level competition was one of the most anticipated moments in recent memory for women’s artistic gymnastics (WAG). Highlight reels featuring Listunova were being shared between gymnastics fans going back six years. Listunova has been hyped for so long that it feels unnatural to think of a time when she wasn’t being touted as the next big thing.
Viktoria’s status as a top junior prospect and even her general existence was the reassuring thought then when our favorite gymnasts of the 2016 and 2020 Olympics eventually retire, there is a worthy candidate to take their place.
When it comes to Viktoria Listunova as a junior prospect, she has delivered on every occasion. Junior prospects can’t be expected to win everything, but Listunova racked up medals far more often that what we typically see. Her routines were advanced for her age, but everyone seemed to feel that Listunova’s results reflected her true talent. Not a junior being pushed too hard, at too young of an age, and was enjoying success in a way that wouldn’t be sustainable.
When Viktoria Listunova won the 2019 Junior World Championships, it became the signature win of her junior career. As for her senior career, Viktoria Listunova quickly proved she was the real deal. Listunova’s first major competition was the 2021 Russian Championships where she won a medal on every event. No other Russian gymnast managed to even qualify on every event.
Viktoria Listunova not only qualified on every event, but won medals in all of them with each medal being a silver or better. But most importantly, Viktoria Listunova had beaten Angelina Melnikova who was reigning bronze medalist at the previous World Championships. This meant that in her very first senior competition, Listunova could already be considered no worse than the third best gymnast in the world.
By the time the 2021 European Championships came around which would be Listunova’s first senior competition featuring international competitors, there was little argument remaining that she wasn’t the leader of the sport, at least in its European theatre. Listunova came and Listunova conquered. She is currently the All-Around Champion with more work left to do in Event Finals.
Listunova has followed virtually the exact same pattern of every child prodigy turned legendary gymnast that has come before her. The young child experts had pegged for the future, and when that future came the experts were proven right. We have seen this before with Nadia Comaneci and Olga Mostepanova. Listunova was as “by the book” and as “predictable” as it gets in this regard.
But then there is the other side of Listunova’s career, the one where Simone Biles and COVID-19 stole the most typical and predictable career of a young novice and threw her into the complete unknown.
The paradox of Viktoria Listunova is that her junior career went down as the most normal and predictable outcome of a highly regarded junior prodigy, while simultaneously coming of age in an era where nothing about her environment was normal. Under normal circumstances, “can’t miss” junior prospects like Viktoria Listunova are supposed to dominate the mindset of the sport. Viktoria Listunova is probably the first example of such a prospect doing everything right, but still fell below the radar because the sport was busy with other things.
The “busy with other things” was the Tokyo Olympics. Initially slated to be held in 2020, Viktoria Listunova was one year too young for these games. But then came COVID-19 which delayed the Olympics until 2021. Suddenly the gymnast who was five months too young to compete for Tokyo was now old enough for these games with seven months to spare.
At a time where most athletes had their dreams either put on hold or were outright stolen from them because of the pandemic, Viktoria Listunova is the rare example of an athlete who benefited greatly from COVID-19. Listunova could very well be the single greatest beneficiary of COVID-19 in the entire sports world.
It also made Listunova the first example in women’s gymnastics where a highly acclaimed child prodigy will make her debut at the “wrong” Olympics. Women’s gymnastics has a longstanding history of closely following its young talent. It doesn’t matter at which age a gymnast first demonstrates true promise. Whether she is 6 or 16, the very first question that the gymnastics community asks when they are given the name of a promising prospect is which Olympics is she eligible for?
It results in the gymnastics community following that specific prospect often for 6-8 years as they wait her Olympic arrival. The number of fans and observers “in the know” that this is the person to watch for the future gets larger as the gymnast gets older. Ultimately culminating in her arrival on the Olympic stage where now everybody is familiar with her name.
That didn’t happen with Viktoria Listunova. She was supposed to be the gymnast of the future, before the future came early. Rather than watch her clout and fame slowly snowball over the course of an Olympic quad, it all came in a flash as the media realized that overnight a gymnast who once wasn’t allowed to be in Tokyo, was now one of its strongest medal threats.
All of it occurring alongside the gymnastics diehards who typically spend 6-8 years talking about what will happen when their favorite novice/junior prospect will make her Olympic debut. Who are the other prospects she will square off against? Will she win? How will she fare in front of the crowds of whatever country is expected to host the next Olympics?
But never before have we seen a gymnast compete against the current batch of seniors, in an Olympic environment, on just 15 months notice. Some of her rivals for an Olympic medal being gymnasts we had expected to retire before Listunova came of age. It all adds to the intrigue of Listunova being the ideal child prodigy who was nothing like your typical child prodigy because of COVID-19.
But when it comes to Listunova’s unusual career, it is more than just COVID-19 that has made things so unusual. In any other era a child prodigy would instantly be one of the most talked about gymnasts in the sport. But try being a child prodigy in the era of Simone Biles.
For Viktoria Listunova her career was going to go one of two ways.
The first scenario was Simone Biles retiring after the 2020 Olympics leaving a void that none of her successors could fill, not even Viktoria Listunova. When Nadia Comaneci was at the height of her career, it came in an era where women’s gymnastics was experiencing a wave of highly successful gymnasts.
Larissa Latynina had retired just 11 years prior to Nadia’s Perfect-10. In 1968 Vera Caslavska and Cathy Rigby put on a show. In 1972 it was Olga Korbut and Ludmilla Turischeva. So when Nadia Comaneci retired after Olympic appearances in 1976 and 1980, she gave the next generation of gymnasts something to work with. After four consecutive cycles of growth in women’s gymnastics, it left the sport in a position where it was probable that there would soon be another fascinating gymnast who could live up to Nadia’s standards.
But three decades later the career of Simone Biles couldn’t be any more different. Whereas Nadia Comaneci was seen as the gymnast who followed up Olga Korbut’s historic success by experiencing historic success of her own, Simone Biles is remembered for giving WAG the type of career it hadn’t experienced in thirty years.
What this meant is that it was hard to get excited over the next generation of child prodigies. If Simone was the type of gymnast who came around just once every thirty years, the implication was that it would be a long time before we’d ever see a gymnast like Simone again.
The other ramification is that even if Viktoria Listunova has a historic career, goes down in history as a better gymnast than Aliya Mustafina, does the gymnastics community still rally around in her the same way it once rallied around Aliya Mustafina? It is hard to get fans to realize the significance of historic success when the last time such success happened, was very recent memory.
Listunova’s career will be defined by the recent memory of Simone Biles. It is hard to escape the shadow of a legend. And for Viktoria Listunova, that challenge is how to ensure all of her medal counts and achievements are valued the same way we would have valued a gymnast who competed in the pre-Simone era. Viktoria Listunova will have to fight to ensure her records and distinctions that aren’t equal to Simone will still be treated as the next best thing.
That’s how Listunova’s career would have panned out if she had come of age after Simone Biles retired. But because of COVID-19, Viktoria Listunova will now compete directly against Simone Biles. Which brings me to my second point.
It doesn’t matter how talented or successful Viktoria Listunova is in junior and European competition. At this point in time, Viktoria Listunova will never be treated anything beyond the second best Olympic prospect for Tokyo. Whereas any other junior prospect would get the benefit of at least being considered possibly the best in the world, for Viktoria Listunova she competes in an era where the gap between Simone and everyone else is simply too large. There hasn’t been a candidate worthy of being Biles’ equal since 2013.
The only gymnast who can relate to Viktoria Listunova in this situation is Aliya Mustafina, who experienced the majority of her career overlap with Simone Biles. But unlike Listunova, Aliya predated Simone Biles by three years and those three years (2010-2012) featured the strongest years of her career.
Would Aliya Mustafina have achieved the same level of fame and success if not for those three years where she didn’t overlap with Simone? What does this mean for Listunova whose entire career will either overlap or postdate the career of Biles? How will Viktoria Listunova carve her own path immediately following Simone Biles who just accomplished everything there is to accomplish in gymnastics?
Simone’s career has been successful and historic, but it came at the cost of sucking the life out of the junior level of this sport. Not just because Simone has set the bar so high future junior prospect won’t be able to duplicate her accomplishments, but because Simone herself was never a highly regarded junior prospect.
This is another key difference in the careers of Simone Biles and Nadia Comaneci. When Nadia dominated the 1976 Olympics, she validated the trend that young junior prospects are the leaders of the sport. Nadia’s legacy is that she revolutionized the junior level to the point where the media went crazy fawning over junior prospects of the late 1970s and early 1980s in an attempt to find the “Next Nadia.” While Nadia empowered the next generation of juniors, the same can’t be said of Simone.
Simone was the unusual example of a gymnast who experienced only modest success at the junior level and started to hit her stride only as her junior career was reaching its end. For a sport well known for producing child prodigies who went on to lead the sport as seniors, the career of Simone Biles forced to sport to rethink that approach. At least until Listunova came along.
Viktoria Listunova’s career is already significant because she has forced the sport to return to the old way of doing things. To remind fans that the junior level remains a somewhat accurate indicator of who the stars of the future will be. Even if Viktoria Listunova herself never truly received the treatment that normally occurs with the expected stars of tomorrow.
There have been instances in WAG history where the junior level becomes so strong fans start debating whether there are juniors who can beat the top seniors. For a wide range of reasons, Vitkoria Listunova never had the chance to accomplish that as a junior.
I don’t mean to imply that gymnastics fans haven’t already given Viktoria Listunova her proper due. Listunova’s career has already been celebrated and she has risen to become one of the most respected athletes in the sport. I only write this article to point out the unusual circumstances where WAG was blessed with a “can’t miss” child prodigy who came of age in circumstances where the sport was too preoccupied with other things to have its top child prodigy be in a position to lead the sport.